The Center for the Rights of Ethiopian Women (CREW) held its fourth international conference of Ethiopian women in the diaspora on March 7, 2015 at Sheraton hotel in Silver Spring Maryland. The theme of the conference was “The Role of Civil Society Organizations in the 2015 Ethiopian Elections.”
The main objective of this conference was to examine the impacts of the 2009 Societies and Charities Law on the activities of nongovernmental organizations, including women’s organizations, which work in promoting the rights of citizens. Because of the 2009 CSOs Law, CSOs are not likely to have any impact in the upcoming 2015 elections. The conference was also to create enabling environment for networking among interested groups who are concerned about Society and Charities Law and its impact on human rights organization.
The conference started at 10:00 a.m. with a welcoming address by, Dr. Maigenet Shifferraw, the President of CREW. She gave a brief explanation on the objectives of the conference and why this year’s conference has focused on the role of civil society organizations in the 2015 elections in Ethiopia.
The first speaker, Dr. Tsehai Berhane Selassie, a historian and anthropologist, delivered her speech via Skype from Ireland. She gave an overview of the characteristics of CSOs, their importance to marginalized interest groups, including women, and the challenges of shaping an enabling environment for CSOs to work. She discussed how CSOs are indispensable to grassroots political process and the state. She explained how CSOs use diversified approaches and strategies to organize people and encourage debates and discussions. They organize around their common interest and work voluntarily and systematically and make the state accountable to citizens. Because they generate and promote a variety of ideas on individual and group interests in different areas of life, they are not homogenous. Working on citizens’ interests independently of the state they contribute towards the democratic transition of societies. They monitor and teach members of the community in conflict resolution, and tolerance of opposing views. In Ethiopia, however, she said that the question is how the federal and regional governments respond to marginalized people, and what alternatives the opposition political parties offer. This is aside from the access to resources that has been stymied by the new CSO law and we have to make sure that these issues feature in the upcoming elections in the country. There are a number of developments in other African countries on how they respond to election. She said, “Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) reported on 6 March that the SADC-CIVIL SOCIETY ELECTION OBSERVATION MISSION has been launched. Announcing the regional collaborative efforts, its first press release called on the Lesotho government to allow it monitor the elections. When a judge annulled a local election in Ghana, the Savannah Women Empowerment Group Ghana, (SWEGG) demanded ‘an unqualified apology from the Electoral Commission over the Supreme Court’s annulment of the District Assembly elections.’ They saw that the annulment was disadvantaging women candidates, and gave six weeks for fixing a new date for filing of nominations leading to the conduct of the District Assembly elections.”
The second speaker was Dr. Melakou Tegegn, a development consultant and author of a book titled, State and Civil Society: Ethiopia’s Development Challenges. He presented his paper from Uganda via teleconference. He discussed how women are pivotal for societal development and political transformations and yet they are discriminated because of their gender. Women constitute 50% of the world ‘s population, but they represent 60 per cent of the world's poor. He said that we couldn’t talk about democracy when 50 per cent of the populations are victims of violence and marginalized.
He discussed three dimensions of women as historical agent of development. The reproduction domain (child bearing and rearing), the demographic domain (contribution to population – human reproduction) and the physical domain – (their affinity to the environment.) Discussing society’s transformation to democracy, he raised three fundamental transformations that take place: Individual to citizen, society to civil society and governance to modern state. He emphasized that development will not take place without recognizing the pivotal role of women and their full participation in the development process. Government should facilitate for their equality and craft policies and strategies for their emancipation from cultural, economic and legal oppressions.
Discussing the current situation in Ethiopia, he said that the EPRDF government does not stand for women. Civil Society Organizations that advocated for women’s rights are all closed and undermined due to the 2009 CSO law. He gave example of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association, which was a strong organization that advocate for women’s rights. It became impossible to continue its work. All CSOs that stand for human rights and women’s rights such as ActionAid Ethiopia and Panos Ethiopia are closed and violence against women have increased.
The third speaker was Mr. Kassahun Yibeltal, a lawyer and active advocate of disabled people who recently came from Ethiopia, discussed the role of CSOs and the Ethiopian 2009 Societies and Charities Proclamation. Mr. Kassahun discussed his experience of the negotiations CSOs had with the government before the law was enacted. He said that a number of CSOs formed a task force and held a discussion with the Prime Minister and concerned officials to demand the amendment of the new law. However, their suggestions for the improvement of the Law were not considered and it passed without their contributions.
Although the main objective of the Law was to facilitate the operations of CSOs and respect the freedom of associations, the impact became different. First, Article 31, 36 and 41 limit the work of CSOs that work on human rights. Second, following the new legislation an independent civil society agency is formed and an office is established. But, the agency denies organizations autonomous right. As a result many CSOs, especially those who used to work on human rights, advocacy for the disabled and the marginalized group and gender are closed. Some have conversion of status or termination of agreements, others suffer from mandate uncertainty, etc.
He said that government should recognize the role of CSOs and CSOs should recognize the role of government. Their relation is interdependent. The presence of CSOs is very important for the development of democracy and enabling environment for dialogue should be open. He strongly urged CREW to lead the advocacy work for the repeal of the 2009 CSO Law. He said it is us who should speak for ourselves not only international human rights organizations.
After Session I, a documentary film about the nonviolent struggle during the civil rights movement in the United States that was narrated in Amharic, produced by Mr. Elias Wondimu, was shown.
Dr. Erku Yimer, Director of the Ethiopian Community Association in Chicago started the afternoon session (Session II). He talked about Ethiopian civil societies in general and discussed those in the Diaspora in particular. He discussed the traditional self-help organization, such as Idir, Iqub and Mahber and their contribution to societal development. However, civil societies that advocate for the rights of citizens did not flourish in Ethiopia until recently.
He added that, as the previous speakers said, the 2009 CSOs laws have practically dismantled these new initiatives. For example according to Article 83 and Article 91, CSOs are not allowed to have anonymous donors, and no public collection allowed without permission. CSOs, therefore, cannot rely on funds raised in the country alone. He pointed out that CSOs in the Diaspora could encourage members to be active in their communities and get involved in the political process by voting for government officials so their voices can be heard. CSOs, with 501©3 status, cannot tell members what party or person to vote for, but they can encourage members of the community to participate in the political process. In this process Ethiopians would have the opportunity to discuss the issues that are pertinent to Ethiopia.
Soliyana G. Michael, a human rights activist who works at Freedom House, spoke about the youth movement and media in Ethiopia. She said that currently, the younger generation is not active in politics as the generation before was. However, there are still few young people who are devoted to struggle for freedom and equality. Freedom of speech, press, and association is not allowed in Ethiopia, although it is enshrined in the country’s constitution. Those young people who are critical about the current situations in Ethiopia and want to express their views about their country are harassed, jailed or exiled. So, young people are fearful of being critical of the government. However, she said she is still positive that there will always be few who dare to take risk. They might be small in number, but the struggle will continue until a just and democratic country is established. She stressed that we in the diaspora should help the youth group who are struggling there under tremendous hardship. Civil Society Organizations are very important in this process. We have to work hard on the advocacy work to repeal the CSO law that limit the work of civil society organizations in Ethiopia that can help the youth and women to organize.
The last speaker was Mr. Obang Metto, a social activist and human rights defender. He spoke about the economic rights of Ethiopian people and the human lives lost due to absence of protection. He said that women and children are most vulnerable in the society. Thousands of children are living in the streets of Addis Ababa without any protection by the government or nongovernment organizations. The children are not only homeless, poor and starving, but also they are physically and sexually abused. There are no civil society organizations that help these traumatized children. We do not have institutions that nurture the children, so we have to create them. He asked, “Who will raise the issue of the poor in the political process?” It seems to him that they are forgotten. He recommended that CSOs in the diaspora should work together for a common goal and emphasized on the importance of advocacy work.
Finally, after thorough discussions on a number of issues related to the topics, participants have suggested ideas for future collaborative work regarding the CSOs Proclamation, peace and reconciliation among different groups in the diaspora. Following are suggestions from speakers and participants:
- We need to understand that without CSOs there is no development; and thus, develop a plan of action and gear resources and efforts to repeal the CSOs law
- CREW should take responsibility of creating a Task Force to advocate for the repeal of the CSO Proclamation and to be replaced by a well-balanced law that would be supportive of the development of CSOs that work on democracy, good governance and human rights. The Task Force should include civil society organizations and individuals.
- Establish and strengthen networks with other CSOs in Africa and learn from their experiences, successes, challenges, etc. and develop solidarity.
- If legal and political matters impede the role of CSOs in Ethiopia, they should be encouraged to develop alternative strategies such as work in collaboration with local institutions such as idir, iqub to address social, economic, and cultural as well as political issues and monitor the upcoming election.
- Network with powerful voices such as Amnesty International and establish working relations to be heard.
- Create a group (Task Force) that would work for peace and reconciliation among groups in the diaspora. We have to be able to solve our problems peacefully.
- We need to support grassroots organizations who are working on advocacy work for the rights of women, children and other marginalized groups